If a guitar band is to win the next Mercury prize, surely it’s Wolf Alice with ‘Visions Of A Life’ — a clear candidate for album of the year. Bands make true art when they articulate the intensely personal to touch strangers and change lives. Wolf Alice have achieved this as, brimming with self-belief, their time has come.
Singer/guitarist Ellie Rowsell has found a more powerful voice or, more precisely, voices. She can still howl, soar angelically, scream, still uses reverb and sets up little vocal dialogues with herself — for instance on the catchy, almost poppy, big groove of ‘Beautifully Unconventional’. But her singing carries more expressive nuances than on earlier work and her spoken voice (especially on ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’) harbours more emotion than ever. It feels like she’s right next to you, whispering in your ear. It makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
Rowsell starts and finishes ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’ in cherubic singing style, romanticising unrequited love to a gently paced, skittering beat. The chorus morphs from “What if it’s not meant for me? Love” to “Me and you were meant to be in love” as the music scales cinemascope heights. Her confessional words apply universally — we’ve all been there: “I’m typing you a message that I know I’ll never send / Rewriting old excuses, delete the kisses at the end”.
There’s no holding back on ‘Visions Of A Life’ from the moment the needle hits the vinyl on ‘Heavenward’. Orchestral guitar effects feed in (or feed back) from Joff Oddie until bassist Theo Ellis and Joel Amey on drums start a tight groove; the lads then give Rowsell space to delicately voice her first verse and it’s powerfully emotive: “I was there just an hour / I could tell that you’d be leaving / So cruelly beyond all our power”. The band comes together for the chorus as Rowsell laments “go heavenward / Like all earth angels should” before the next verse’s beautiful epitaph for a friend: “I’m gonna celebrate you forever”. Through moving lyrics, the personal becomes universal.
It’s an emotional relief to pile straight into the animalistic catharsis of ‘Yuk Foo’. At its heart is fury about casual sexism — “The shit, everyday wolf-whistle thing,” Rowsell says. She screeches through the breakdown, then rips at her guitar as she screams “no I don’t give a shit” to Ellis and Amey’s raging rhythm section and Oddie’s frenetic wailing guitar.
After the four download/video singles released so far, including ‘Beautifully Unconventional’ and ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’, ’Planet Hunter’ summarises the band’s progression from naive folk simplicity to mature artless complexity — building from just acoustic guitar and Rowsell’s voice (sugary, tremulous and husky) to Ellis’ gorgeous bass riff at the end. The song snatches at hedonism during two years on the road: “I left my mind behind in twenty fifteen / A moment’s happiness / A moment’s madness.”
Wolf Alice experiment with new and disparate styles over the second part of the album. A pounding heartbeat and airplane atmospherics provide the backing for ‘Sky Musings’, Rowsell’s story of panic at 40,000 feet — a spoken word avalanche. She again uses spoken word on ‘Formidable Cool’ before breaking into a howl: “That’s all he fucking did when he fucked you on the floor”. The song is half made for dancing, half for thrashing. Ellis gets to fatten up his bass to its funkiest and the guitars from Oddie and Rowsell shred gleefully to her screech.
‘Space & Time’ — punk through a Britpop and grunge prism — plays that favourite trick of fast and loud; slow and quiet; fast and loud. Amey shines on syncopated drums in ‘Sadboy’ while, deliberately or not, Oddie brilliantly channels the iconic guitar sound of Will Sergeant in a track that has the joyfully epic melancholy and majesty of Echo and The Bunnymen. It is unlike anything Wolf Alice have done before, climaxing triumphantly as a Gospel choir of multitracked Rowsells and treated male backing vocals belt out “Waiting for love / I was just waiting for this not to hurt”.
‘St. Purple & Green’ continues the vast soundscapes of ‘Sadboy’ but delights with a series of surprising rhythmic and melodic twists and turns, allowing Rowsell to explore new vocal highs as she pays tribute to her “Nana”: “You might be changing, but you’re still there”. The album was recorded in Los Angeles and Wolf Alice turn west coast on ‘After The Zero Hour’, recalling The Mamas and The Papas as a guitar is gently picked and Rowsell multitracks her voice to achieve choral splendour.
If anyone thought Wolf Alice would never match the monster metal-like riff of ‘Giant Peach’, wait for the title track, which ends ‘Visions Of A Life’. This is a heads down, no nonsense, thoughtful boogie that spirals to stratospheric heights. As the band jams and riffs, and Rowsell roars and shrieks, the ambition and scope are breathtaking. Any successful track touching eight minutes needs to go through the gears and round unexpected corners — check out The Orielles and their fantastic ‘Sugar Tastes Like Soap’. ‘Visions Of A Life’ is no exception. It ends gently and lusciously, the guitar and Rowsell melodically locked together, as she breathes enigmatically: “Human heart in my hand, heart in my, human heart in my hand, taking it back, eyes straight ahead, cut it in half, better than dead”.
There’s no wasted effort on these 12 tracks by Wolf Alice — every word, note, beat and effect counts. Their first album, ‘My Love Is Cool’, was one of the best debuts of the decade, only kept off the number one spot because Florence + The Machine replaced Foo Fighters as headliners at Glastonbury, boosting their sales. The follow-up takes in friendship, loss, excitement, anger, panic, sharp cultural references, family. All life is here, in this vision.
‘Visions Of A Life’ is released on 29 September via Dirty Hit.
Wolf Alice ‘Visions Of A Life’ tracklist:
2 ‘Yuk Foo’
3 ‘Beautifully Unconventional’
4 ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’
5 ‘Planet Hunter’
6 ‘Sky Musings’
7 ‘Formidable Cool’
8 ‘Space & Time’
10 ‘St. Purple & Green’
11 ‘After The Zero Hour’
12. ‘Visions Of A Life’